Tuesday 27 October 2015

Film: 'Spectre'

So, was it worth all the fuss and the wait? I regret to say "No", and that being by quite some way.

First, some things I did like about it:-
Christoph Walz makes for a credibly creepy, psychopathic, interesting villain as head of the nefarious, acrostically-named organisation bent on world domination (ho-hum!) which gives the film its title.
Ralph Fiennes as 'M' and Ben Whishaw's 'Q' play more participatory roles than previously.
Daniel Craig is as good a Bond as ever, though for the first time here I had the niggling feeling now and again that he was starting to act on auto.
The most spectacular sequence is the pre-title opening set in Mexico City. Nothing in the body of the film comes even close to it.
There's not much else that I felt really positive about.

Several of the set pieces are derivative - situations and locations straight out of previous Bond films. One gets all the expected chases and fights - cars, helicopters, train - as well as the climactic confrontation (with obligatory torture) between Bond and his nemesis in (where else?) but in the latter's secret, secluded lair - lavishly furbished and equipped as always..
The main romantic interest is provided by Lea Seydoux whose character observes the standard formula of initial mistrust, even deep antipathy, being transformed to a realisatory enlightening that Bond and she are on the same side.
I felt that the encounters between the two of them significantly slowed the action down, such that there were several points at which I found myself stifling yawns. The film is close on two-and-a-half hours long, the longest Bond to date, and at times it felt like it.

If Sam Mendes's direction is efficient enough for the purpose (he also directed the superior 'Skyfall') the story could have done with a strong injection of imagination and originiality.
Apart from Mexico City (and London) other locations are Rome, the Austrian Tyrol and Tunisia.

And then, as a post-script, there's the indifferent (to my ears) title song by Sam Smith - not quite the worst ever (which honour surely belongs to Madonna for her utterly dismal 'Die Another Day') - but nowhere near as memorable as some that the series has produced. And I hadn't a clue what on earth he was singing about. When he goes into falsetto mode his consonants disappear like Adele's do in her 'Skyfall', leaving me tantalisingly in Limbo until I look up the lyrics, though Adele did have a stronger melody.

The first Bond film I ever saw was the fourth in the series, 'Thunderball', in 1965 (it was also the very first time that I went to a cinema alone) and caught up with the earlier ones shortly afterwards. By then I'd have read most, or perhaps all, of the Bond novels - a series which I've now read half a dozen times. I still remember watching the film of 'Thunderball' and marvelling at how exciting it was. I was practically gripping the arm-rests! Since that time, of course, we've all grown wiser and more demanding in our entertainment requirements. We can all spot a ropey back projection now, for example. But I think all those early Bond films of the 60s, 70s and some into the 80s, plus maybe two or three of them since then merit a second or even multiple viewings. Regrettably, I do not think that 'Spectre' deserves to be on that select list of mine.................................6.

Friday 23 October 2015

Film: 'Pan'

 I'd have by-passed this were it not that I've got the hots for the HUGE Jackman. It unexpectedly turned out to be a veritable visual feast, and I'm not only referring to the aforementioned star. Director Joe Wright ('Atonement', 'Anna Karenina') proves without doubt that he has a remarkable flair for visual imagination - and he's still only in his early 40s. This is an almost non-stop extravaganza for the eyes, reminding me frequently of the fertile mind of Terry Gilliam, and 'Baron Munchausen' in particular.

It's been noted that the chronology is all to pot, this story being a prequel to that of the Peter Pan novel which the whole world knows, yet the framing story-device of the baby growing up to be a boy (abandoned by his mother, in an orphanage run by hideous tyrant-nun Kathy Burke) is set in WWII London, i.e. several decades after the original tale. Okay, as the entire saga is a flight of fantasy I suppose we can go along without thinking too much about it.
The story here is 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller, rather colourless, if you ask me) and other boys in the establishment are abducted by the crew of a flying pirate ship captained by the villainous Blackbeard. Jackman, even when playing evil can't but help charisma oozing from his every pore. (It got me wondering what a terrific Satan he'd be in, say, 'Jerry Springer - the Opera'!). Peter discovers his talent for flying which he has to practice at in order to perfect it, meanwhile striking up a friendship with one James Hook, (the future 'Captain H.') in the person of Scandinavian-American actor, Garrett Hedlund, at this stage still possessing both his hands (strange that his name should be so prescient of his hook-wearing future), he being a 'goody' character, sympathetic right to the film's end. There's also Amanda Seyfried and Rooney Mara providing some feminine allure to what otherwise would have been a heavily male 'boy's own adventure' (There's no Wendy here!).
Peter's main driving force is to find out who is mother was who'd given him up and what had become of her. (Blackbeard is involved, if it's not giving too much away).

The special-effect pyrotechnics throughout this extremely busy film are jaw-droppingly good - probably the best I've seen in any film to date - and I saw it in only the 2D version, wishing I'd gone for the other. Otherwise the story is not very substantial though it's largely aimed at a kids audience, so that won't matter too much. I wasn't actually bored at any time despite it's nearly two hours length.

A pleasant surprise, then, though it really does need to be seen on the big screen. Other than the presence of our Hugh - who, I know, isn't appreciated by everyone - its saving grace is those most astonishingly impressive CGI effects........................6.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Film: 'Sicario'

Few could deny that this film is a cut above most, though I don't go all the way with the many adulatory opinions being heaped upon it, which was the chief reason for me going out of my way to catch it.

Grim throughout with highly suspenseful episodes and graphic violence at several points (much of which is actually off-screen or in long-shot, though not all), we have Emily Blunt as an FBI agent seconded onto a military squad trying to wipe out a long-standing  drug-smuggling operation from over the Mexican border. She represents, in effect, the film's 'conscience' working with (or fighting against?) the seemingly callous attitudes and conduct of her all-male colleagues, chief amongst whom is Josh Brolin. Riding along with them is the mysterious and taciturn Benicio Del Toro participating in the operations but holding himself at a distance at key moments, and whose real aims are revealed later in the film. No real surprise at that.

Their are a few grisly sights, particularly near the start, after which the the film concentrates on the mechanics of the operation to obliterate the drug-smuggling route and finding and disposing of the gang leader(s) operating it.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve keeps the screws tightened for virtually the whole film, though it's clear that any moments of relaxation from the suspense will follow the well-tried formula of being followed by a sudden, highly-charged event, or a tense sequence complete with thrumming, menacing bass music background.
One reviewer in particular has made much of a traffic jam episode which, though effective, found left me expecting something rather more exciting than I found it.

One of the personal difficulties I had with it, which many will not share, is the casting of Emily Blunt. Fine actress though she undoubtedly is, in my mind she carries the 'baggage' of earlier successful films she's made, most notably 'Young Victoria', and all through this film my mind kept nudging me that this was that youthful queen. Not her fault, I know. That film was six years ago, and she's made quite a number since then, including 'Into the Woods'. But I found myself unable to dismiss the constantly recurring thought of her portraying royalty, such that whenever she swore in 'Sicario' it sounded more outlandish than it ought to have done. I'll agree to put this down to my own little, though unfortunate, quirk. 

I did think this was a powerful film overall but it's not one that will ingrain itself on my memory as much as some other recent thrillers have done...............................6.5.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Film: 'The Lobster'

Way beyond being merely 'odd', this is the most bizarre film I've seen in quite some years.
It's the world the characters inhabit rather than the goings-on themselves that makes it strange. Very funny in patches (particularly in the first half as we learn how this 'world' operates), it won't carry everyone along with it, but I liked it on the whole.

Some critics have described this British-Irish production as being set in a dystopian future but I think it's more in an alternative social setting in which the rules of living have been shifted sideways, rather than it being science-fiction futuristic.

Colin Farrell (right, above - almost unrecognisable, having also put on weight for the part), is a recently widowed, rather timid, man who, now being single, has to attend a strange hotel (managed by a steely Olivia Colman) and given 45 days to form a genuine relationship with another of the attendees (bisexuality is not recognised. You're either hetero- or homo-) or he'll be classed as an undesirable 'loner' and turned out into the woods to become one of those hunted down by those still in their trial period, and eventually be changed into any animal of his choice - in his case this being a lobster. (He gives the reason for opting for this creature early in the film) The drive behind the first part of the film is his attempt to avoid the fate of becoming one of these dreaded loners.
In the hotel, two of his 'co-guests' are Ben Whishaw (who seems to be in every second film these days, and with 'Spectre' just coming up as well. I'm not complaining.) and John C. Reilly, here disappointingly under-used. Then the action moves to the woods where he meets up with Rachel Weisz, also attempting to survive as a prey-target of the regular hunts.

This film, stretched a bit too long at close on two hours, has a number of disturbing moments and  gets bleaker towards the end. Throughout, though, there are peculiar and unexpected one-liners which, when funny are really so, that I was wondering how the actors could keep a straight face while delivering them. (I ought to mention also that there are two or three instances of deaths of animals that made me flinch, the first occurring within the very first minute, though none of them are prolonged.)

This is Greek director and joint writer, Yorgos Lanthimos', first English-language film and he makes a good job of it. If there are a few moments of ennui they all come in the second half but otherwise he keep a tight rein.The first hour or so is excellent.

If you like to see a film that's a bit strange and more than being just quirky, I'm sure you'll like this one....................7.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Soixante-neuf today! (15th)

Oh well, another one down = one less to go (to oblivion - and beyond?).

Don't know why I'm smiling so smugly above. It was taken yesterday when I'd just got home from doctor following my regular six-monthly diabetes (type 2) check, and where I'd learnt that my constantly high blood-sugar level was giving rise to concern. So now got to do a daily self-administered blood check - and this for someone who feels like flaking out at the mere sight of the red stuff. That's one prezzie I could have done without. Bad enough when it's someone else's blood but when it's your own.......! I'll try hard not to swoon away, though should I do so it will be in most demure and maiden-like fashion. True that the procedure only involves a little pin-prick but, as some of you are well aware from experience, even the tiniest of pricks can be very uncomfortable too. Let's hope I can avoid having a spell of the screaming(-queen) habdabs.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Film: 'Suffragette'

Another film where my verdict is at odds with most peoples. No big surprise there then. What may be less expected is that I thought it merited considerably more praise than IMDb's current low average rating of 5.9 would suggest (from over 900 viewers). 
It concerns events of the female emancipation struggle and campaign in Great Britain, specifically in London, in the pre-WWI years. (Complete voting equality with men was not achieved until 1928. This film deals with a time when women were not allowed to vote at all.)

I feared that the film might drown in its own proud sense of righteousness, but it doesn't come anywhere near doing that. I found it intensely moving throughout, and I can't imagine anyone with a social conscience not being stirred to anger at how long we tolerated this hopelessly unjust situation, some of it actually defended by some women themselves, such had been the effectiveness of 'brainwashing' over our history.
Incidentally, it got me wondering why I cannot think of another film (aside, of course, from 'Mary Poppins') which mentions the subject of women's voting rights, let alone treat it as a serious subject. It strikes me as fertile, unutilised ground for a film subject.
The story told here does demand sentimentality in parts, but it's not a cloying sentiment merely added in for dramatic purposes. Director Sarah Gavron keeps the emotions in sensible proportion.

Carey Mulligan is a laundry (entirely manual) worker, having to work more hours than men employed there but for less money than the men earn. Doing a delivery one day she witnesses a group of women protesting for the right to vote by turning, for the first time, to violence against property, in this case, breaking store display windows. Although initially cautious with her sympathies, this event turns out to be the catalyst in her involvement with the campaigning movement, but spurred further on by the demeaning attitude of her male boss towards her and her female co-workers. Meanwhile, her suspicious, unsympathetic husband (Ben Whishaw), assured of a husband's superiority, becomes more hostile towards her activities, particularly when her agitations lead to her spending time in prison. To punish her he eventually descends to using prohibition of her seeing their young son. 
She also befriends doctor and activist Helena Bonham Carter in a refreshingly unhistrionic role, and with whom she becomes bosom friends. Then there's Brendan Gleeson as a gruff, disapproving police detective determined to defeat this movement, using the police force and whatever means is necessary to stop the women - though there's a sense that he's reluctantly letting his heart be ruled by his head.
And we get a fleeting appearance from Meryl Streep as the movement's leading light, Emmeline Pankhurst. Her total on-screen time must be no more than two minutes, but she does make an indelible impression.

It's all shot in sober colours, as befits its constant serious mood, much of it shot at night-time. Director Sarah Gavron does a magnificent job holding it all together tightly, and with Abi Morgan's script too (she who also wrote 'Shame' and 'The Iron Lady'). The entire cast, female and male, is first rate.
If I do have any complaints at all it's the old bugbear of inaudible dialogue. In fact there were a number of short scenes where I could hardly catch a single word said, making me seriously wonder if it's my hearing that's getting defective. I did so badly want to hear everything as it's so important to the story.
But apart from that I was mightily impressed with this whole project.

A very good film in my books, without any doubt...........................8.

Monday 12 October 2015

Film: 'The Martian' (in 2D)

It's getting alarming the frequency with which I feel at odds with majority opinion, but there's no avoiding that this is another one for that list.
Although he's made a handful of well-regarded films ('Alien' and Thelma and Louise' being among them), director Ridley Scott has never been one of my particular favourites, though must say that I do generally prefer his films to those of his late brother, Tony S.

With all 'space' or 'another planet' films I always come up against a very individual problem in that I find so many errors in depiction and execution that suspending my disbelief is distractingly tiring for an entire film's length. (For that same reason I find watching any of the 'Star Wars' films exhausting enough to detract from any enjoyment.) I do envy those members of an audience, the majority surely, who can go along accepting everything uncritically, and just enjoy the 'ride'. I dare say that if I knew a lot more than I do about, say, biology or computers, then I'd find any films with those subjects at their heart equally problematic. Just from the trailer of 'The Martian' I could see that this film would cause me difficulties.

Okay, so having got that confession off my chest, here Matt Damon is stranded alone on the 'Red Planet' after the rest of the crew have departed to return to Earth, they having assumed that Damon had been blown away, lost and died as a result of a ferocious storm (in Mars' very tenuous atmosphere? - and that's only one error! Lots more to come but I shan't enumerate them all). At first it looks as though he can't be rescued for around another four earth-years, while his provisions and oxygen supply won't last more than a few months at most. However, with some necessary ingenuity he comes up with a few wheezes to lengthen that period.
Meanwhile, on Earth first at NASA (boss Jeff Daniels), then shortly the entire world (cue; international co-operation - with one country in particular), discover that the Damon character is still alive so all the stops are pulled out to expedite an ultra-speedy rescue..
There's a good cast - including Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean (the latter in untypical low-key mode) - and the drama flows on seamlessly though also, it must be said, in pretty mundane and formulaic fashion. There were hardly any true 'surprises'.
Some of the space shots are most impressive and must be even moreso in 3D. But one expects no less these days, so I've got no complaints at all on that score.

It's a long film at a fair bit over two hours. I dare say that it was suspenseful enough to have kept some of the audience quite wrapt, though me only sporadically so. However, I've got to give it its due and, turning aside from my factual criticisms, it was pretty solid entertainment. If you're less bothered with inaccuracies than I was then it's a good recommendation, notwithstanding my own very personal rating of.......................5.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Film: 'Macbeth'

If you're one who considers the audibility of the play's text to be relatively unimportant, and is subservient to the looks and atmosphere of this film, then you'll have a higher regard for it than I did. I was in a state of virtually constant frustration at being unable to decipher what most of the cast were saying (apart from title lead Michael Fassbender) that I would have welcomed subtitles. The worst offender by far was Marion Cotillard as Lady M, who was 90% indecipherable, totally unable to deliver lines in prescribed iambic rhythm when verse-speaking - and in single words of more than one syllable she'd frequently fade her voice out to a practically soundless whisper,  gasp or sigh, surely leaving most of the audience not one iota wiser as to what she'd just said. Sad to say, Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Duncan also had their faults for inaudibility some of the time. I can only imagine that the entire cast was instructed not to be too worried about articulation because, other than Fassbender, they weren't. Oh, and I ought to say that I'm more familiar with the text of this play than any other in the playwright's canon.

With exterior shots filmed mainly on the Isle of Skye, it's all lowering, threatening clouds and heavy mists, beginning and ending with bloody battles - with plenty of gore in between too, including, of course, at least two key murders.
Visually raw in tooth and claw, it shifts texts around - or at least what's left of it after a severe pruning of what is already Shakespeare's second-shortest play - and liberties are taken with the action and motivations, which is fair enough, though I personally found at least one change quite jaw-dropping. But if one doesn't know the play then it will hardly matter.

Australian director Justin Kurzel has created an 'entertainment' which uses the original text as little more than a pretext to film an 'interesting', action-packed story. As a vehicle with which to get to know the original play there are major shortcomings, not least of which is the lack of clear enunciation. I felt let down, If it wasn't for Michael Fassbender's central performance I'd be rating it significantly lower than....................4.

Monday 5 October 2015

Film: 'Mia Madre'

Nanni Moretti's films have never been dull. Here, as director, writer and actor, he's made a beautifully judged film, possibly his finest to date.
Based on the loss of his own mother during the making of his previous film 'Habemus Papem', this one, with Margarita Buy in the central role (Moretti himself playing her brother) chronicles the decline of their mother, alternately in hospital or at home, suffering from a terminal respiratory condition.

Buy is a film director currently working on a project showing an industrial dispute, she trying to hold herself and the project together amid frequent visits to her mother who's also given to mental wanderings, and in one case, an impetuous 'escape'. Buy is not helped in her film project by importing a famous American actor (John Turturro - speaking both Italian and English) who's so full of himself and exaggerated fame, yet when it comes to work he can't seem to remember his lines. His scenes provide welcome light relief to the sombre mood prevailing on the visits to the mother by son (Moretti, in a very downplayed, but sensitive role), herself as daughter, and the latter's own teenage, Latin-learning, daughter. To complicate matters even further she has just moved out from living with her partner, much to his disappointment. So she has a lot on her plate, trying to juggle conflicting emotions demanding her attention while she fights on trying to get the film progressed. Meanwhile Turturro's character, as the new factory boss, is distrusted by his workforce suspecting imminent lay-offs, while he himself, amid fluffed or forgotten lines at which he frequently loses his cool, tries vainly to reassure the employees.

It's a perfectly balanced film - moving, yet not over-sentimental, when it could so easily have fallen into that trap. There's no doubt that the film's focus is Margarita Buy's marvellous performance, a lot of her emotions written on her features rather than verbally expressed - she trying to supervise her film project yet being the victim of family and personal circumstances, inconvenient to say the least. Moretti's story and screenplay is perceptive, realistic and totally believable.
I liked this film so much that I can forgive it for including one of my pet detestations, a couple of songs (in English) on the soundtrack. Nevertheless, a most satisfying experience..................7.5.